The art and science of empowering our lives

How to Handle a Difficult Family Member

We all encounter many unpleasant and hurtful people throughout our lives, but the worst is when it’s a family member. These people have a special place in our lives, where they have the dual power of making us miserable, and not giving us very many options on how to deal. There are some people in my life, whom I love very much (I won’t mention any names or their connections to me), but they can make me feel terrible, and hurt my feelings. The conundrum is that I’m stuck with them, and as long as I still want them in my life (sometimes I really have no choice in the matter), I must figure out how to cope. Below are my suggestions, but they are just that—suggestions. We generally love our family more than any others, and that is why they have the most power to hurt us.

1) Keep Your Cool!

This is the most important step that you can take in dealing with a difficult or mean family member. (This is also the number one step for dealing with anyone difficult). When you keep a level head, and don’t respond emotionally to their jabs, then you have suddenly reclaimed some of the power in the relationship. You are no longer allowing them control over your happiness.

2) Be Aware!

Following in the vein of the first suggestion, it is imperative that you are not only calm in the situations, but that you are aware. This means that you need to know when the person is upsetting you, what they say or how they behave that makes you feel the certain way, and primarily, your response. What can happen is that we get drawn into a habitual cycle with people that we know well, or whom we have known for a long time. We always seem to get into the same argument, and the same things that they say always are upsetting.

Allow me to clarify the importance of this step.

My sister and I often have gotten into arguments about trivial things. (Actually we argue a lot, but often those arguments are easily resolved). But what I have become aware of recently, is that many of our arguments follow the same pattern, and are not only about the same subjects, but their results are almost always identical. Recently I have tried becoming aware of the triggers to these arguments, and the structure that they take, and I have noticed something: almost all of our arguments stem from a single disagreement. Now I’m not going to say what it is here, because I want to respect her privacy, but if you are aware enough, and really think about why there is tension, you can usually figure out what triggers the situation.

3) Be Frank, But Nice!

It’s important to be truthful with the person, since they need to know, or at least feel that you respect them enough to be honest with them. But this is not to say that you should be brutally frank with them. I know that in an emotional situation, this can be so incredibly tempting. I have experienced this many times before. I feel like I’m in the right for speaking honestly, but ultimately being completely truthful with them will do a great deal of damage. The temptation lies in the power to make the person feel bad, so as perhaps they will feel what they make you feel (this can either be intended as an attempt to help the person understand the pain they cause, or simply as a vindictive pay-back). And therefore, I recommend:

4) Listen!

It can be incredibly difficult to actually actively listen to the person who you feel is being mean, since their words will cause you pain. But if you take the time, and patience, to listen to them, you will probably become more aware of the situation, and they will thank you for it. Many problems can be solved by better listening on everyone’s part.

Finally, there are people who are persistent in being difficult, whether they intend to cause hurt or not. In these cases, you may need to be more proactive.

5) Draw the Line!

There often comes a point when you need to tell the person that they are being rude/mean/etc, and that you won’t accept that type of behavior from them. This is best done in private so as to not cause any humiliation. It is also beneficial to be very explicit, and speak in terms of yourself. Say: “I am very hurt when you do/say…..” or “I feel that you are insulting me when you say/do…. and I don’t want you to do this anymore.” It is very important to tell them like the above, so as not to get sidetracked by any argument that might arise if they feel that you are accusing them, and then start defending themselves. Never approach the situation with wording like this: “You are such a mean person! I don’t know how anyone likes you when you’re always mumbling insults.” I know that this is a little dramatic, but you get the gist. Don’t accuse, and the intensity level will be lower, and the person will be more receptive to your request.

You may need to make the difficult decision of severing contact, but don’t make this decision lightly. If you feel that you have exhausted all of your options, consider how much you value your relationship with them, and what the consequences will be of ending it. Often times it is better to distance yourself for a while (if possible) while emotions cool down, and then to reexamine the situation.

6) Allow Them to Express Remorse!

It is difficult for people to apologize and express remorse, but when it does happen, don’t push the point. Thank them sincerely, and move on. People still manage to surprise me (generally in good ways). Just as I am writing this article, a family situation was resolved by a simple apology. It is a wonder that we don’t use this simple saying more often without trying to explain our actions or defend ourselves. (see my article on how to apologize). “I’m Sorry,” can get you so far.

Overall, dealing with difficult people in your family can be emotionally draining, and at times heartbreaking, but don’t let that stop you from still trying to figure out a way to cope. Family relationships are important, but they don’t have to make you miserable, and when you stay cool, and aware of the situation, you are already on your way to improving the situation. Even when you can’t control the potentially hurtful actions of a relative, you can control the power that they have over you emotionally. Refuse to allow them to make you miserable, and you may find that their behavior improves. When bullies no longer get a rise out of their subjects of torture, they tend to lose interest, and will probably respect you more for it (although perhaps their respect is not necessarily what you desire in the situation).

Please let me know how you cope with these situations.


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